Art in Relation to ConsciousnessPosted: November 11, 2015
Today has been a strange and intense day; beginning with a spell of nausea and a lot of pain. Apparently cycling in the wind and rain and spending night after night sleeping in dry air isn’t good for you and I spent the majority of the morning with my face in a towel hovering over a bowl of boiling water and breathing like a lunatic. I also had to leave work early, which kinda sucks.
HOWEVER, faith was not lost and this afternoon has been a lot better. After months of crying over spilled milk, and the fact that I couldn’t go to Rome, or Venice, or Cork, I finally faced up to my responsibilities and managed to change Field courses onto the Art and the Conscious Mind instead of staying in Engineers of the Imagination, which would have meant having to do a performance and learning about something I definitely wouldn’t have been interested in. Instead I get to explore the theories of consciousness and quantum physics, apparently, which is so much cooler (I am such a nerd). So here I am, at the beginning of the next five weeks, with a head full of caffeine and ears full of rainwater but in high spirits and ready to take on everything these lessons have to offer. There is so much to write about to do with consciousness and what I learnt today and it will definitely not all fit into one post, and I also don’t want to just roll of the information word for word so I will briefly cover the most important parts and try to sum them up in my own words.
So to begin with, Robert Pepperell, the lecturer, began with a slightly controversial statement (in my mind anyway, I’m sure it’s a completely valid and popular idea). His statement was that humans are absolutely 100% the only species that experiences consciousness; that animals are entirely incapable of self reflection and awareness and act completely out instinct. I personally can’t accept that this is definitely true, possibly because I haven’t had the same education and out of ignorance sometimes assume that everything I don’t know about the world is left to interpretation. We then went off to discuss topics such as the biological base of consciousness (which is still unknown, much like what the universe is ‘made of’) and the connection between the mind on the inside and the world on the outside; how do they connect? There are two main theories of this; one is that there is no world that we can physically touch and see, all of our senses are internal and merely creating copies or illusions of our environment, and two is that we are indeed able to see and interact with our surroundings in a physical manner and that what we see is what is there and not just an image fabricated by our own self.
There was a short section on Dennett’s Consciousness Explained book which looks at the notion of us as humans being ‘the same’ as robots in a sense and therefor the idea that if we can have consciousness we can also look at extending consciousness to objects and in turn everything else around us. This is something I am going to investigate further into outside of the lectures as well because, while I don’t necessarily agree with all of it as of yet, or rather am unable to process how it would work exactly, I would definitely like to learn more about it.
We looked at the painting ‘Cupid and Psyche’ by Anthony Van Dyck which helped to clearly distinguish the fundamental differences between consciousness and unconsciousness. Here we see Psyche is a state of unconsciousness (the work of Venus, the goddess of love), unable to perceive the world around her, she can see, feel and be aware of nothing and is for all intents and purposes, dead. Cupid on the other hand, as you can see in the way that he is painted, is very bright and animate, with the red cloth wrapped dramatically around his moving body and the vibrant, living tree behind him. Psyche is shadowed by the tree behind her, dull and lifeless with only a few small signs of growth. This tree is also argued to be a representation of Venus, depicted as a wailing witch looming over her.
Going back quickly to ideas of consciousness generally, we learnt that there are five main beliefs and ideas of consciousness:
Panpsychism – The idea that everything is conscious
Eliminativism – The idea that there is no such this as consciousness
Mysterianism – The idea that consciousness is so mysterious a phenomenon we do not have the cognitive capacity to ever be able to explain it
Dualism – Consciousness is distinct from physical processes
Materialism/Physicalism – Consciousness is entirely derived from physical metter
I think I agree with the mysterianism idea most; I think that there are lots of things in the world, lots of forces and energy, that we as humans simply do not have the capacity to fully understand. In the same way that cats and dogs are unable to see colour in the same way as we do. This fits neatly in with my Constellation lessons on the different dimensions of the same universe and how different objects and species see and interact with things.
We also covered vision in relation to consciousness. Helholtz has/had (I am not yet sure if he is dead or alive still, I assume dead but I will find out) the belief that what we saw was entirely based on our internal perception of our environment and nothing to do with what we are actually viewing.
He said “The objects at hand in space seem to us clothed with the qualities of our sensations. They appear to us as red or green, cold or warm, to have smell or taste etc. although these qualities of sensation belong to our nervous system alone and do not at all reach beyond into external space.”
Here we see a cube. But we are able to see the cube in either of the top two ways, some of us can train ourselves to see both at will. But what is really on the page is just a series of lines drawn in black ink; there is no cube at all. We can also recognise the ink as a pattern, proving that vision is all down to perception and not an accurate representation of what we are being shown. This is to do with our conditioning; what we are used to seeing, what situations we can take experience from in the past and our expectations of our environment. This is just a basic example but it happens all the time in reality, for example looking at a television screen and being aware of the shapes and the colour rather than the image as a whole, and not understanding what it is you are looking at.
There is a condition called visual agnosia in which its ‘victims’ are unable to recognise objects despite being completely able to see what is in front of them. William Turner (above) was an artist who was ridiculed for his ‘indistinguishable’ paintings, however since then many artists, including Claude Monet and, in much more locally, Robert Pepperell (below), have attempted to recreate this feeling of indeterminacy for people who do not have the condition by creating artworks of colour and shapes that can seem recognisable to its viewer but without being actually distinguishable.
I find this fascinating (again, bit of a nerd), as well as being amazing works of art; striking and unique, they make us try and find ‘stuff’ we can form into ‘things’ we understand knowing full well there is nothing there, taking us back to a childlike ignorance, or even to a primal level. These types of paintings have sometimes been considered to be abstract, however the shapes, colours and forms have all been taken from actual objects, not getting rid of objects altogether. Much like music being just sounds put together, these paintings do not have to be ‘of anything’ but of themselves.
Kandinsky (above) is another artist often referred to as the first abstract artist, however he is another who worked with visual indeterminacy. You can see there are structures and object-like forms in his work and they are not just abstract shapes.
And lastly, probably my favourite part of this session; the idea of making a universe. The philosopher George Spencer Brown said “A universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart.” An example of this is the human body; something which creates an “inside” and separates matter leaving the world “outside”. Another example, and a simpler one, is this drawing of a circle:
By seperating the paper I have created an interior and an exterior and a ‘universe’ inside of the circle. Which was a pretty nice way to end the lecture.
Since then I have cycled home in the dark, (it was 4pm, why is it getting dark this early?! It’s almost like I haven’t experienced Autumn before) It wasn’t even a chase this time, but it was misty and would have been spooky if it wasn’t so beautiful, I wish I had taken my camera with me but I did manage to get a few snaps on my phone.
When I got home I looked into Susan Blackmore’s work on consciousness and found this video which pretty much sums up the lecture word for word.